It was by chance that I wandered into a discussion of religion and the lottery at UNLV’s Lied Library the other day. Or perhaps it was by divine guidance—I seldom know. In a side room of the jam-packed-for-finals library, University of Virginia Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Cohen spoke not only about the popularity of the lottery in the 44 states where it’s legal—Americans spent $70.1 billion on it in 2014—but also about the religious overtones of playing. That is, players pray about it, and if they win, they’re inclined to thank God, and also to imagine that they were somehow chosen over others to have the money, as in, “God answered my prayers; God wanted me to be rich.”
The lecture came a couple of days after the shooting in San Bernardino. I was already filled with a dread of the randomness of life and death, of the danger of religious certainty, of the absurd task of trying to contain heavily armed assailants who choose arbitrary places to shoot innocent people. I was thinking about the security at Lied when I went in, and decided that after taking reasonable precautions, our safety is more or less one big gamble, and what can you do, short of wearing Kevlar and helmets, except hope—or pray—and get on with it?
But prayer had recently taken a hit, as many Americans were finally fed up with policymakers’ standard intangible response to mass shootings: “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” Prayer was not enough, critics said; we need laws, plans, action. The New York Daily News said it loudest with a full-page cover line: “God Isn’t Fixing This.” The criticism itself was then criticized as “prayer-shaming,” and on we went with a shrill debate that’s as surreal as our predicament.
Cohen’s speech, then, randomly put the charm back in the human condition for me, if only for the hour. He noted that in the 1980s, a quarter of a million people subscribed to Lottery Players Magazine, which contained little more than pictures of winners holding their checks and thanking God. The odds of winning the lottery are miniscule, something like 1 in 175 million, far worse than casino gaming, but the dream is as dramatically and irrationally enormous. As one player Cohen mentioned saw it: The odds are actually 50-50—either God wants me to have it or He doesn’t.
Writer Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” first ran in The New Yorker in 1948, on the heels of race- and religion-based atrocities of World War II, and plenty of readers hated it. In the story, everyone in a familiar-feeling village draws pieces of paper in an annual lottery, and at the end, the person with the black-marked paper is stoned to death by the other villagers. “It isn’t fair,” says the innocent, unlucky character Tessie Hutchinson, as the villagers mundanely pick up their stones. When Jackson’s story appeared, she received a pile of letters from confused and/or upset readers. “I read it while soaking in the tub … and was tempted to put my head underwater and end it all,” wrote a woman in Minnesota.
Ruth Franklin, Jackson’s biographer, wrote in The New Yorker in 2013, “‘The Lottery’ takes the classic theme of man’s inhumanity to man and gives it an additional twist: the randomness inherent in brutality.” I was feeling that after San Bernardino; I’ve been feeling it more with every mass shooting.
In addition to commentary on our random brutality, a religious undertone creeps up in “The Lottery”—one that speaks to the potential danger and hypocrisy of religious conviction and conformity. The character Mrs. Delacroix, a villager who in some interpretations represents Christianity (de la croix, of the cross) or religion generally, proves to be exceptionally cruel. As literary essayist Helen Nebeker wrote in 1973, “Horribly, at the end of the story, it will be Mrs. Delacroix, warm and friendly in her natural state, who will select a stone ‘so large she had to pick it up with both hands’ and will encourage her friends to follow suit.” If I was overwhelmed with the randomness of human brutality after the latest shooting; I was more overwhelmed by the increasing rhetoric of a religious and race-based war.
Standing in the university library in Las Vegas, a city built with cash from those with quite a bit of faith in gambling, the historian Cohen said of hoping to get rich playing the lottery: “It’s not irrational in a society that says you can get ahead without providing an opportunity to advance.” Now we were considering America’s decreasing social mobility, another societal malignancy, and he seemed to be asking, “If the world is irrational, isn’t the appropriate response irrationality?”
While it wouldn’t be unheard of for a politician to tell the poor to pray harder—religion is the opiate of the masses, after all, and sometimes the crazy-making bath salts—“Have faith” ought not fly as an American economic policy, nor should religion be the basis of any public-safety policy, or immigration policy, or war; see the First Amendment—which we keep losing sight of in light of the Second. That much seems clear. But the efficacy of our dwindling logic in the face of random atrocities leaves me shaken.
That night, while waiting for a friend at a casino, I contemplated why this particular room full of people stayed civilized and safe—was it randomness, or God, or was it due to the order of law and the strategic application of the ideological opiates? I don’t know. So I did what any rational person would do. I put $10 in a video-poker machine. Either God wants me to have a windfall or He doesn’t, right?
I was out $10 in less than 90 seconds. But I made it home safe.